The Museum of Innocence at Somerset House, 27 January – 3 April 2016

The Museum of Innocence offers the visitor a little corner of 1970s Istanbul, hidden in a wing of Somerset House. The exhibition takes its name from the novel by Orhan Pamuk, in whose works Istanbul is a near-constant presence: the Swedish Academy cited Pamuk’s ‘quest for the melancholic soul of his native city’ in awarding him the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006. Nowhere is this melancholy given freer rein than in The Museum of Innocence, published in 2008. The novel tells the story of Kemal, a wealthy businessman in 1970s Istanbul, and his love for Füsun, a poor, distant relation. Their relationship, which stretches over 30 years, is tumultuous and, ultimately, tragic. Kemal keeps a collection of objects linked to their affair in a house in the Çukurcuma district of the city, the house where Füsun and her family lived, and the novel takes the form of something like a literary guide to that private museum, beginning with a misplaced earring and ending with a characteristically postmodern flourish from Pamuk, who reveals himself to be author-curator some 700 pages later. In 2012, Pamuk opened the Museum itself, in the same district of his home city. Its 83 display cabinets correspond to the novel’s 83 chapters: 13 of them can currently be seen in London as part of this exhibition.  

Before entering the room that houses these 13 vitrines, however, the visitor to Somerset House passes through a narrow corridor lined with screens showing sequences from Innocence of Memories, a film by British director Grant Gee which dialogues with, and expands upon, Pamuk’s novel and museum. The fragments on offer here have the camera roaming Istanbul’s streets at night, passing men fishing from a bridge over the Golden Horn, or following a group of wanderers up an alley. The city appears over-lit, seeming in fact to glow with sourceless light. There is no allusion to the events of Pamuk’s novel, and yet the slowness of the camera’s tracking movements suggests a shared nostalgic impulse: all must be registered, all retained.

The vitrines themselves are in arranged in a corner of a small, dark room. On the opposite wall are some small plaques in the same formation, each with a few sentences alluding, sometimes rather obliquely, to the corresponding passage in the novel. The visitor is treated to, amongst others, a display visualising the agony of waiting for the beloved (a clock, framed photos, burnt matchsticks), and a surreal diorama incorporating a shell, a tea glass, a tiny cut-out of a woman, and an ashtray, with the title ‘Istanbul’s Streets, Bridges, Hills and Squares’. The abiding impression is that living, or writing, is in some sense just the accumulation of random, seemingly nondescript objects that in fact harbour or protect certain emotions, sensations, or thoughts. What to do with them? Can we ever bear letting go of ecstatic experiences, or painful ones, or of any sort of experience at all? Visitors to the Museum are confronted with these questions.

5. The Museum of Innocence at Somerset House. Chapter 14. All rights belong to The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence at Somerset House. Chapter 14. All rights belong to The Museum of Innocence

They are also confronted with the wonder the perennial traveller feels at the sheer variety of the world. The arrangements of tiny photos of football players and movie stars, the yellowing Turkish Airlines tickets (in a box titled ‘My Father’s Death’), the assorted bottles of cologne, all stretch beyond themselves and make the dimensions of the displays seem very limited indeed. The most successful vitrines are those that perform this gesture explicitly, through playful allusion to theatrical conventions (a curtain partially drawn back, paper backdrops giving the illusion of depth, or objects seemingly suspended in mid-air). Those, in other words, that refuse the ordinary, drab connotations that usually cling to the ‘everyday’.

This play with perspective, hinting paradoxically at the lack of objectivity in our perceptions and our memories, is fundamental to the Museum’s aesthetic strategy. There is, therefore, something jarring about the clarity with which Pamuk outlines the motivations behind the exhibition in its final room, where a screen plays, on loop, a series of authoritative statements from the author-curator himself. Pamuk gives no quarter as to what the Museum is and is not: ‘the Museum of Innocence is not an illustration of the novel that shares its name’, and neither, he reminds the visitor, is the novel a guide to the museum. The two projects were conceived in parallel, and Pamuk provides manuscript pages on one wall of the final room and design sketches on another, as if to make his point concrete and visible. Yet it would be difficult to argue that the two can truly be experienced in parallel: any visitor to the Museum, whether in Istanbul or in London, will either have read the novel beforehand or not. Herein lies a potential sticking point, at least for those who, like myself, have read the novel before visiting. For them, the objects on display cannot be those of the novel, and nonetheless cannot avoid comparison to them. They do not coincide with themselves.

Left: The Museum of Innocence at Somerset House. Chapter 37. Right: Orhan Pamuk © Tommy Fitzgerald. Courtesy Grant Gee + Hot Property Films.
Left: The Museum of Innocence at Somerset House. Chapter 37
Right: Orhan Pamuk © Tommy Fitzgerald. Courtesy Grant Gee + Hot Property Films

This thought bears more detailed examination. Towards the end of Pamuk’s novel, Kemal addresses his readers: ‘Visitors to my Museum of Innocence must compel themselves, therefore, to view all objects displayed therein – the buttons, the glasses, the old photographs, and Füsun’s combs – not as real things in the present moment, but as my memories.’ This is a difficult injunction, but one which literature renders possible: the photographs and combs on the page are available to the reader only as nodes in the network of spaces and moments that Kemal experiences and clings to. Pamuk makes a similar plea in the exhibition’s closing video, asking for the Museum to be understood as a place of stories, not histories. Yet there is a significant risk that, in the Museum’s physical form, a comb may be just a comb. For those with a personal investment in Pamuk’s narrative, this can feel like nothing less than the destruction of metonymy, the breaking of a link to an imagined world. It is, for this reason, a museum of longing, as well as of innocence.

Perhaps this observation is similar to Heraclitus’ statement on the ever-changing river and the ever-changing man who steps in it. None of the visitors to Somerset House actually visit the same Museum; none sees the same clock, the same painting of birds, the same glass of rakı. The Museum does not coincide with itself. And this may be precisely Pamuk’s point: neither does Istanbul coincide with itself, belonging to East and West, to the Byzantines, to the Ottomans and to today’s Turks. We do not coincide with ourselves, either. Perhaps we should embrace that; perhaps I should embrace my unease at the Museum’s de-particularised melancholy. And yet we grasp after our own remembered versions of things. We long to own our losses, to hug them close, and often need reminding of their independence from us.

By Paul Merchant

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